A Christmas Robbery (Thailand)
This true story recalls the time that a Mikey Finn was slipped into my drink on Christmas day, while I was celebrating and drinking cheap whiskey with local Thai hoodlums. Not surprisingly, I woke up without my wallet near a secluded alleyway. It was at this time that I discovered the real meaning of Christmas.
I woke on Christmas day very depressed. On the last Christmas Eve of the millennium, the first ever spent away from my family, I was robbed while wandering the streets of Thailand. In Bangkok there are bands of professional thieves that perch themselves among tourist zones, waiting for the optimal moment to pounce. For me, the awaited moment struck on the very crowded Khaosan Road at night, on which drunken tourists packed together like grains of Jasmine rice in the same small bag.
My mistake: I had shared my drink with a group of Thai teenagers loitering outside of a westerner filled bar. One of the young men asked if he could share my beer with me. I obliged looking forward to the conversation and not wanting to appear judgmental. Although I can’t verify it beyond reasonable doubt, I believe the bottle was handed back to me after being laced with some knockout drug. I heard rumors about this activity but considered them part of a growing catalogue of tourist folklore. I never thought that it could happen to me.
The teenagers passed my bottle of beer around then shared a bottle of whiskey with me. My last clear memory was putting my backpack down for one minute, resting it near the shin of my right leg while putting on a warmer flannel shirt. The Bangkok night air had acquired a slight chill as the hot reddish sun sank from beyond the periphery of my eyesight. The next thing I remember I was on my back waking up on a sidewalk near the club. In those brief moments that passed my backpack and wallet were gone.
It was as if it vanished in thin air. Nobody was sprinting away desperately clinging to my backpack; nobody was suspiciously concealing it under a blanket or a coat; nobody was passing it like a football through the window of a conspiring vehicle or to a well-placed passerby. One distracted moment and almost everything was lost: my bankcard, my Korean work card, my recently purchased Christmas gifts, and nearly all of my money. Thus, Christmas Eve, usually spent celebrating with family and friends, was delivered to me while alone and nearly penniless in a foreign land. Given the unexpected plot twist, my vacation turned out to be my most interesting spiritual experience to date.
I woke up Christmas morning depressed. From the first watery eye opening I promptly conducted a wishful inventory of my belongings. I had a scattering of clothing, tour books, and toiletries. I left these in my room prior to being robbed. I would have left my backpack too, but reports of theft in hotel rooms are also common (the thieves often being fellow backpackers). I figured it would be safer to just keep the backpack with me. Luckily, I still had my passport having the foresight to stash it and a little money in a hidden pouch. I would need these to both leave Thailand and to return to Korea. In total I had about $5 in emergency cash. Armed with only these things I had to survive the duration of my vacation.
I spent nearly half my money to call my family back home to wish them a Merry Christmas. Given the time difference it was still Christmas Eve in the United States. I talked with them through some odd pay-by-the-minute phone system that would automatically hang up every 60 seconds. Therefore, after three phone calls I was able to conduct a casual conversation in which I could lie and say that everything was alright – so that my family wouldn’t worry and experience a ruined Christmas. It was good to hear their voices, although the phone system, probably an illegal one with pirated phone lines irritated me as the connection dissolved and reappeared like ocean waves. Everything seemed so surrealistic: being in Buddhist Thailand on Christmas morning, having warm sunny weather rather than cold winter snow, hearing the muffled voice of my mother coming through a back alley phone line for 20 baht per minute, and the foreigner-friendly Christmas carols sung in the Thai language. It wasn’t Christmas by my definition.
After the phone call I retraced my steps from the night before. I unrealistically wished to find my discarded backpack, deflated by the lack of contents but full of undisturbed surprises like my bankcard. I could always dream, but most likely the contents were already redistributed. At best my identification card might be later resurrected for sale months after I departed Thailand. A visit to the police station proved most ineffective. The sleepy-eyed police officer seemed preoccupied by my alcohol intake level from the night before. He predictably admitted that he could do nothing, but if I filled out a three pages of forms I could reclaim it if it turned up in the lost and founds.
I began to feel sick. My head ached fiercely. It was at this time that I ran into an Indian man who offered to read my fortune for a small fee. He told me that I was a very lucky man. I informed him I was robbed the night before and asked how I could be lucky. His quick comeback line was that westerners didn’t understand either luck or suffering. I wondered about this as he led me down a quiet back alley. Having already been robbed, I felt no rush to curry a repeat performance. I reiterated that I had bad luck, that I was robbed of my money, and that I couldn’t pay him for his fortune telling service.
We sat down by a decomposing wooden fence He explained that luck, like fortune, was not easy to read. Bad luck and good luck can switch places depending on the situation. For example, is it good luck or bad luck when somebody gets into a major car wreck but survives unscratched? It is bad luck that their car is destroyed but good luck that they were not harmed. Likewise, it is good luck if somebody wins the lottery and becomes wealthy overnight, but this fate can prove bad if envy destroys that individual’s friendships and greed divides one from their family. The English language needs, he reasoned, a word for when bad luck and good luck are combined. Our English idioms and phrases (fool’s luck, dumb luck, Irish luck) fail to capture this dynamic.
The Indian was dressed in full Sikh regalia such as a turban and a sword ornament. Reading my fortune he stated bluntly that I am lucky because my girlfriend is preparing to fly out to visit me soon. This statement surprised me because there was no way he could have known this fact. He also stated that I am lucky because my problematic life frees me to do things that others could never experience. He noted that although I have an obvious background with poverty, my lack of material goods made it easier for me to travel and experience adventure. My native-tongue enabled me to teach overseas while still impoverished, while others in poverty lacked the same opportunity.
He then proceeded to do the usual fortune telling tricks offered to other tourists. For example, having me write down a number or a color on a piece of paper, while he did the same on a different sheet. Twice he unraveled his predictions to reveal the exact same notes. The later psychic exercises I rationalized as basic trickery but his perceptive comments about luck struck me.
The Indian eventually asked if I could pay him anything for his services. He told me he would use the money for an orphanage. He even broke out a photo album to illustrate samples of this charity organization for children. In the back of the book I noticed there were many photographs of nude prostitutes. I guess that this was his side job for when his fortune telling business wasn’t doing well. Like many Thai men in Bangkok, he claimed to have an official government license to hook tourists up with female escorts. This doesn’t negate his comments; he just needed to make money somehow. I promised to pay him in karma. He laughed that karma would not feed his children. I ended up paying him nothing. He insisted that I acknowledge that I was a lucky man: I had my fortune read for free, is this not proof of his accuracy about my luck?
In better spirits, I spent my remaining $3 on a final meal and a cheap bed for one night at an Indian operated hotel. As my headache drilled into my skull, I settled into my room, which had no bathroom or a functioning lock. Moments later I puked my Last Supper into a community shared toilet. Now I was penniless. I cleaned up my mess, showered with ice-cold water, brushed my teeth with brownish tap water, and prepared for Christmas Day.
My afternoon began by spotting an advertisement for a free drink to anyone with a passport ending with the number four. Digging out my passport I realized the value of a free drink. The bar was empty inside except for a British expatriate on business. I struck up a good conversation with him and he bought me a few more rounds. The Thai bartender also provided a sample of a local Thai drink. It was a dark concoction from a huge jar with many odd ingredients floating at the bottom that still remain an enigma to me. The Thai bartender, fleeting away from the British chap’s fond flirtations, found her way to the kitchen to prepare a tray of exotic fruits for us (rambutans, mangosteens, lynchees). As we ate the bright colors and dissolved the sugary tastes, the man gave me advice on places to go at none or little cost. He informed me that I could take a boat taxi up and down the river all day for less than $1. Inspired, I left the bar to see the river.
On route I noticed a table where local vendors sold used English books. Digging through the limited supplies that I had left, I had two guidebooks that I could sell so that I could tour the riverside. The vendor gave me $4, but insisted that I also exchange for another book as part of the trade (I picked an outdated guide to India; one that would affect my life six months later). Having parted with my Thailand guidebook I had no idea on what sites to see or where to go. At least I had $4 to travel with. Once on the river I followed my mind and made random stops and walked around spontaneously.
One stop led to a Chinese section of Bangkok, another unfurled to reveal a market where I could buy old coins for my brother and fried plantains for myself. I took boat rides blindly. Sometimes the taxi would merely take me to the opposite side of the river while at other times it would land quite a distance downstream. I never figured out where I was going until I got there. After some effort I was able to view my favorite sights. Wat Pho had several huge chedis, prangs, and stupas that rose independently in colorful layers into the heavens. The same temple hosted an enormous, reclining, golden Buddha. Behind which could be heard plinking sounds as hundreds of tourists dropped a multitude of coins into a line of lined up metal containers. The second site that impressed me was Wat Arun, a funky psychedelic monument that I could walk around whilst gazing at statues of elephants and various mythical figures. Thai temples shined bright with gold, red, and green colors. Each construction was peppered with deities and mystical beasts to awesome effect.
With the most part of Christmas Day spent content by the river I was quite happy. I was even able to afford a meal of spicy coconut soup in the late afternoon. Afterward I walked around the city just exploring and trying to decide what to do. A large crowd was gathering on a street nearby. I joined them so that I could understand what all their excitement was about. A parade of cars drove by as people merrily waved. I waved too, in the mood of the moment, although I did not know whom I was seeing. The smiles among the crowd were contagious. It put me into a good to be part of the experience. I left being happy and without realizing that I just met His Majesty the King of Thailand.
At one point one of the ever-present tuk-tuk drivers offered to drive me around Bangkok at no charge. In Thailand there are many of these three-wheeled motor vehicles to shuffle tourists around the city with. Each Asian country has its own variety of makeshift transportation for tourists: tuk-tuks, samlors, vikrams, jeepneys. Most of these modern inventions of transport developed out of World War Two. For example, the Jeepney was designed from leftover U.S. military equipment (my father actually repaired some as a mechanic in the Philippines), and the tuk-tuk was originally created in post-war Japan and later adapted to Thailand’s emerging tourism industry. Thailand has exported about 10,000 of these vehicles to India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Despite this, a British company patented the name “tuk-tuk”, so now Thailand has lost the right to market what it considers to be its intellectual property.
My tuk-tuk driver informed me of his Christmas special: free transportation. The only catch was that the driver was required to stop at a few jewelry and tailor stores in order to earn gas credit. At each shop venders applied hard sales techniques to manipulate me into making a purchase. However, this didn’t bother because I had no money and plenty of time. Not fully trusting the situation, I climbed into the dilapidated tuk-tuk and, indeed, spent the day touring every site that I wanted to see prior to getting robbed. Without money or access to any guidebook, I accidentally saw everything I intended on visiting beforehand. I spent the last of my money on two soft drinks, one Thai and the other American. I offered the driver his choice of the two. He happily picked the western soda and I luckily guzzled the Thai one. Dropping me off he honored his word and charged nothing.
When he dropped me off he parked his vehicle behind the car of two Thai women who were entering a coffee shop. As I walked away the driver chased after me. Still stunned after a day of luck, he inquired if I could help these two students with their project. Having no plans or money, I offered them a free English lesson as we sipped iced Thai coffee at sunset. The two students taped a conversation about my perception of Thailand as a foreigner. They planned on transcribing segments of our talk for a classroom assignment. It felt like a gift to spend my evening chatting with two very beautiful Thai women, as the waning sun dipped its shimmering red face into the river. Finished, they actually thanked me for this time helping them with English.
Back at my hotel I sold a vendor a flannel shirt, the same one that I was putting on while my backpack was stolen. The price I got was the exact amount needed for one beer and a late night snack at a Thai restaurant. I nursed this beer during a double feature of pirated western films. These movies, still not released on video, were shown right in the restaurant while we ate. Toward the end of the second movie I encountered seven European tourists who, in festive Christmas spirit, supplied several rounds of beer as we bonded on Christmas night in Thailand. We gathered together in our personal global village as we drank and danced in the moonlight to very bad Christmas carols, crafted into Thai pop songs. Eventually I wandered back to my bed, thankful and penniless, as Christmas faded into sleep.
I woke the next morning confused with mixed emotion. As a cynic I resigned the previous day’s luck as just Christmas spirit. Fellow tourists and Thai Buddhists did these kind things for me because Christmas is considered a special day for comradeship. I also grew increasingly angry with myself for not preparing better for travel disasters. I taunted myself over not buying traveler’s checks or not placing my bankcard into a hidden pouch. Hindsight, however, is always much easier than planning ahead. The extent of my mistake was compounded even greater once I readdress my situation. I still couldn’t afford the next night’s rent and would have to sleep at the airport. Worse yet, I learned that my receipt for the airport’s departure tax was also stolen and I would need $10 to replace it. Feeling very upset about myself, I thought deeply about how I could get back home to Korea. I reasoned that I could fast for one day and sell the rest of my gear to pay for the larger portion of my departure tax. I hoped that I could still leave Thailand if I was a few dollars short.
After my morning shower I decided that I would sell more clothes and supplies to the Thai vendor outside. The vendor was quite pleasant and never tried to take advantage of my situation. Shaded by a cloth-wrapped Banyan tree he slowly pieced through my remains, explaining what he could sell and how much profit he could make from it (American condoms somehow pleased him most). Two of the items had strong sentimental value to me: I sold a T-shirt that my sister had given me from her Hawaiian vacation and I sold an old electric razor inherited from my father after he died. He once taught me how to shave with it, which is both an awkward but sweet memory. I sold both; thus my family indirectly helped me out during Christmas without knowing it.
While discussing my previous robbery with the Thai vendor, a pair of Czech newlyweds overheard our conversation. The Czech husband approached me and offered to buy my electric razor. However, he was too late and my transaction with the vendor had already been completed. The Czech asked how much money I needed to pay departure tax and to buy a bus ticket to the airport. After my recent sale I was exactly $5 short. Without saying a word he handed me $10. I was overwhelmed with surprise. The Czech Republic is a very poor country and the couple, on their honeymoon, clearly did not come from a wealthy background. I was grateful that I never had to ask or beg for money. I tried to return the extra $5 but he refused to accept it, so I insisted on giving him my favorite sweater. It fit him perfectly.
I joined the newlyweds for coffee. Meanwhile, a very young, friendly, and inebriated Irish man, who I remember from the night before, danced up to us wishing good morning. He had not slept yet during the night. I decided to pay for a late night bus ticket to the airport to save on paying rent for the night. This would be easier too since I sold my alarm clock one hour earlier and my flight was scheduled to depart at 7:00 am. Checking out of my hotel after one last ice-cold shower (hot water is difficult to come by in Thailand), I tried to occupy one more day of time.
I walked having little money; having little money I walked in the most impoverished area I could find. I was attracted to an area that had more trees than other parts of Bangkok. Almost all the businesses in this neighborhood operated out of wooden shacks. Extended families lived in houses made of rusted metal, corrugated tin, decomposing wood, and other found objects (an artwork in its self). I saw poverty worse than anything I have ever experienced personally, which is quite a lot considering I have been homeless or living in my car on several occasions.
When I stumbled onto a Buddhist temple, unmarked by any tourist map, I couldn’t help myself from responding. I donated every piece of clothing and material possession that I had to the neighborhood. I hung it all on a fence near a temple shrine for locals to discover later. Now I had nothing but five dollars to spare, the clothes on my back, and the old coins I bought for my brother. On my way back some locals gave me exotic fruit that I never tried before. It was an enormous green fruit the size of two watermelons. They chopped at this fruit with a machete until they could pick out a seed the size of an small apple. Outside the seed was the actual fruit consumed. The fruit inside the fruit tasted like a thin artichoke heart, which turned out to be a jackfruit. They offered the fruit to me just because I was passing by at the right moment. I enjoyed the fruit as I continued on my path.
I stumbled onto a local music shop. I decided to listen to Thai pop music. I was disappointed because I hadn’t purchased any Thai music prior to the theft. There is an abundant supply of dirt cheap, pirated western music all over Khaosan Road, but it was very difficult to find Thai music in the district. After the theft I resigned myself to being deprived of the souvenir that I sought most. In the United States, while working as a disc jockey, I heard about a popular Thai band named “Carabao”. I never actually listened to their music before; I only heard good things about them from Thai and Lao students. Inside the store I tried to communicate with two sales clerks for the next hour in their broken English and my non-existent Thai. When they learned that I was looking for Carabao they became very happy. They invited me to tea and oranges while they played their favorite songs from many different selections. They were pleased and surprised that an American “farang” had heard of this band. Out of pride, they sold me two cassette tapes at great discount. They made me promise, however, to play them for friends back home.
Late at night, making my final rounds before catching my bus, I ran into the same lad from Ireland. He still resided at the same bar since Christmas evening. In a supernatural display of strength he was still going. He had now gathered a new group of friends around him. In leftover Christmas spirit I joined him, spending my last few Thai baht on a Thai dinner and a beer. I tell him about my Irish roots and we toast each other repeatedly until my mini-bus arrives. I board while the now irritating Thai Christmas carols continued to play - the day after Christmas. As luck had it, I caught an earlier flight that night, finding a good night’s sleep on the airplane. I woke before breakfast and an early arrival back to Korea.
Once in Korea I had a new set of problems getting back to Kumi City. Without my bankcard I couldn’t withdraw money from my account. I explained to a representative of Thai airlines my situation. He explained that I had to take a subway to the center of Seoul to find a branch of my bank. As an afterthought, he reached into his pocket and pulled out enough Korean won for a subway fare and a soft drink. Laughing to himself, he explained that he was pick-pocketed his last time in Thailand, too, and was more than glad to help.
At my bank I had a major communication problem trying to obtain money and to cancel my stolen bankcard. I ended up calling Eric, my favorite Korean student, for his linguistic assistance. To my fear it is parlayed back to me that, due to a technicality, I must go to a branch in Kumi for these services. Being trapped in Seoul, after all I had been through in Thailand, was very frustrating. Perhaps in the greatest display of human spirit ever offered to me by a total stranger, the bank teller gave me $50, trusting that I would return it the next day. This money, being $40 more than necessary, turned out to be from her own pocket. In gratitude, I returned the money to her the next day as promised. I dropped it off before meeting my Hungarian girlfriend at the airport. The Punjabi street hustler was right: westerners don’t understand luck.